July 11, 2012 -- As a single parent to a toddler, there are times when I have found myself steering clear of certain activities for either emotional or logistical reasons, or both. And I must admit that a recent weekend trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., almost fell into that category, until I remembered that Disney World is one of the most child-friendly places on earth, and navigating it would not be much different than navigating my everyday life.
So if you're a single parent and wondering whether you can swing a trip to the "Happiest Place on Earth," here's how I did it, just Ellie and me.
(Editorial Note: Disney is the parent company of ABC News. As a Disney employee, the writer is granted free admission to Walt Disney World).
1. Use the Magical Express and check your bags.
Disney provides transportation to and from its resorts for no extra charge 24 hours a day via Magical Express transportation. If your flight arrives between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m., Disney handles your bags for you as well, which means if you check your bags at the airport, the next time you see them is when they are in your room. You can reserve Disney's Magical Express Transportation online or by calling (407) WDW-Magic.
And if you're wondering how I managed to get to the point of checking my bags with an 18-month-old in tow, I went the route of the ERGOBaby carrier that is the one baby item I cannot live without. It is comfortable, allows me to carry my daughter while keeping my hands free, can be worn on my back or front, and holds kids up until they are 45 pounds.
When it's time to return home, some of the major airlines allow you to check in for your flight at the resort, which means you can check your bags on-site, again giving you one less thing to schlep.
2. Ask for a preferred room at your resort. When I was booking our stay at Disney's Pop Century Resort, I explained that I would be traveling alone with an 18-month-old and they offered a preferred room (which does cost slightly more than the standard rate) that put us close to the pool, transportation and dining hall. It really made getting around a lot easier, and cut down on the amount of time I was carrying her to and from different locations.
Also keep in mind that Disney provides transportation (bus, boat or monorail) between the resorts and the parks, so you don't need to worry about how to get around once you are on Disney property.
3. Rent a stroller.
If you're traveling alone with a child, keeping your hands as free as possible is the name of the game, which is why I didn't want to be bothered with a stroller unless I was inside the park. So instead of bringing a stroller with me, I rented one. It was actually quite easy and I never encountered a line, but it will cost you about $15 a day (a little less if you rent for multiple days). There are rental locations at the entrances of the Disney Theme Parks, Disney Water Parks and the Downtown Disney area. And there is ample stroller parking outside all rides and venues, and attendants helping keep that area organized.
A couple things to keep in mind: The strollers are a plastic and aren't really comfortable for napping, and there is a bit of a walk from the transportation to where you pick up the stroller. So it might be worth it to bring the front pack along or get ready to give a few piggy-back rides.
4. Take advantage of the lockers.
My daughter is still at the diaper-bag phase of her life (insert mildly exhausted sigh right here), so any additional bags were difficult to manage, which is where the lockers came in handy and they only cost a few bucks. Although it was a bit of a walk to drop off purchases and such at the lockers throughout the day, it was really helpful, especially when going to eat.
5. Plan your meals and accept help when eating.
Meals were really the point of the trip that I was most anxious about when planning it. First of all, stepping outside a restaurant to quiet a tantruming toddler while your food gets cold is really not the way anyone wants to spend a meal. And we all know that sometimes we can't stop a tantrum no matter how hard we try. Secondly, there are a number of buffets in Disney World, and trying to fill two plates of food while managing a hungry little one is not easy.
Well, for the most part, my concerns were for nothing, as long as I avoided completely self-serve food areas, which were quite difficult to handle on my own. But beyond that, we had wonderful meals, the most enjoyable of which was actually a buffet dinner at the Tusker House in the Animal Kingdom. The hostess and our waitress immediately picked up that I was traveling alone and went above and beyond to help, even going as far as to walk around the buffet with me and fill our plates, while I carried my daughter. After we sat down, they came over to ask whether we needed any more of anything, and entertained Ellie while I finished up a very tasty meal.
6. Let Disney take the pictures for you. Taking great photos of my daughter was also a bit of a challenge. She is too small for me to ask her to stand still and pose for a picture, so I was struggling with how I could capture the great experience she was having and then I discovered Disney's PhotoPass. There are photographers throughout the parks and at the venues where there are characters, and they are happy to snap photos for you. Then they give you a little card (the PhotoPass) that you hand over to any other Disney PhotoPass photographer who snaps a picture. They scan it, and then all of the photos are uploaded to the website, where you can view them and order digital copies or prints. They can be a bit pricey, though, so I suggest letting them take as many photos as you like, and then being selective when deciding which are worth keeping.
Also, when we went to take pictures with Mickey and Minnie in the Magic Kingdom at Town Square Theater, there were handlers present who were more than willing to take pictures with my camera while I helped Ellie out, allowing me to capture the fun we were both having, without spending any extra money.
7. Don't overdo it, head to the pool instead.
If this is your first trip with your child(ren) as a single parent, I would suggest easing into it. Ellie and I only visited Disney World for a weekend, and while we were there I made sure that we paced ourselves. It can get quite hot in the summer afternoons in Orlando, so I suggest being realistic about what you and your kids can handle, and taking advantage of the great pools that all of the Disney Resorts have to offer.